(The following is taken from the keynote I delivered at Port Townsend last month.)
When I was young, I read a lot. It was a free-range time – my siblings and I would be set loose in the library or our parents’ shelves or various yards sales or best of all, the book section at the local Korvettes. Korvettes was the kind of store that sold everything from perfume to ammunition to live gerbils… and their book selection was amazing. I spent many happy hours browsing books about multiple personalities and religious cults and hypnotism and cats. I especially loved dream dictionaries. At nine, I yearned for something that would decipher my dreams which so obviously seethed with powerful if cryptic meaning. But the dream dictionary I finally bought turned out to be a total bust. I found never dreamt about kings or swords or trains entering tunnels. Nor was I anxious about dying, or wanting to kill my father, or castration.
Decades later, scientists in Heidelberg, Germany conducted experiments on the neuroscience of dreaming to better grasp the process and gain understanding into what purpose it actually serves — if any. They focused on the hippocampus and neocortex, which work together during sleep to process the day’s dumpster-load of data and determine what to keep in long-term memory and what to toss. Some of that data gets stitched together into weird little quasi-narratives – supporting what Francis Crick, him of DNA fame, and others consider the “garbage disposal” theory of dreams.
Of course, this is one view. Throughout history, dreams have long been considered divine messages requiring interpretation by priests and prophets. Sigmund Freud felt that dreams were a disguised fulfillment of repressed wishes. Even today, psychologists and priests and painters and yes, writers, people like you and me – often find dreams an invaluable jumping-off point. We value our dreams for the engagement they can inspire – the associations and insight we can summon – and for the resonance that can arise from the seemingly nonsensical.
In these rambling thoughts about dreams, what I’m actually talking about, naturally, is subtext. And what interests me most is not so much what it is — but why it is. If the best of human creativity is rooted in the subconscious, and I believe it is, all art therefore shares at least a zip code with dreams — if not an actual street address. And I believe that subtext exists as a challenge to interpret and understand in a way that goes far beneath the surface – not unlike the idealized dream dictionary of my childhood. The tools of subtext are, after all, the language of dreams. Subtext conveys itself through puns, potent images and symbols, point of view, odd names, apparent slips of the tongue, patterns, incongruities, the unexpected.
In the 2018 South Korean film, Burning, an ominous triangle between two men and a woman explores familiar suspense tropes regarding duality, class differences, and subjective reality. Yet one glancing reference – to the amplified propaganda from across the Demilitarized Zone in the far distance – underscores the subtext that pushes the film beyond a universal psychological thriller into a deeply Korean story with profound national, political, and cultural layers. To anyone familiar with the festering division of the peninsula, these two men suddenly emerge as figurative brothers whose unholy estrangement leads to an act of Biblical violence.
Several residencies ago, we had a group discussion about what it means to be a Writer in the World. Some of you already teach, or volunteer, or are activists socially or politically. This giving back is something I encourage strongly, although I’m not here to harangue you. But for purely selfish reasons, if you want to be a better writer: I urge you to engage with the times. Read the news. Inform yourself of the issues that frighten you; cherish the dreams you hold for yourself and the planet and those you love.
Trust me on this one: You are shutting yourself off from a profound and vibrant dimension to your work if you are not in the world and of the world, in your life and of your life. Meaningful engagement with something within you and outside of you, something that is bigger than just the events of your life, your text as it were, will vastly deepen your work.